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Posts Tagged ‘afghanistan’

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Photo: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
Afghan boys read books inside a mobile library bus in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Just when you thought the news was too depressing to turn on the radio or open a newspaper, here’s another story about good people making sure that books get to children who need them most.

Anne Cassidy writes at the Guardian, “Around the world, mobile library programmes are taking books, educational support and even counselling to communities in serious and urgent need.

“Every week, two converted blue buses stocked with children’s books carefully navigate the streets of Kabul, avoiding areas where deadly explosions are common. These travelling libraries stop off at schools in different parts of the city, delivering a wealth of reading material directly to youngsters who have limited access to books.

“ ‘A lot of schools in our city don’t have access to something as basic as a library,’ says Freshta Karim, a 27-year-old Oxford University graduate who was inspired to start Charmaghz, a non-profit, in her home city having grown up without many books herself. ‘We were trying to understand what we could do to promote critical thinking in our country.’ …

“In some cities public transport is being commandeered as means of getting books to communities that need them most. Vehicles are being reimagined and upcycled to not only to spread the joy of reading, but to educate and improve lives. …

“For Karim, buses were a cost-effective, efficient way to get books to children. Charmarghz rents them from a state-owned bus company. … The organisation is funded by donations from local business and communities, and also boasts a third bus that acts as a mobile cinema. Over 600 children visit the buses each day to read, socialise and play games. …

“On the other side of the world, in Tijuana, Mexico, another bus has been similarly transformed – this time for migrant children, whose families have come from countries such as Honduras and El Salvador to escape violence or poverty.

“The city is a popular destination on the migrant trail as it lies south of California where the courts tend to be more welcoming than in places such as Texas, so people have a higher chance of being granted asylum in the US, says Estefania Rebellon, founder of the Yes We Can World Foundation, which runs the bus school. …

“The school chose a location next to a shelter for families, as children make up 60% of the resident population. Many families remain at shelters for months waiting to apply for asylum.

“Rebellon was inspired to set up the school after volunteering at a Tijuana refugee camp. ‘I saw kids running around without shoes, just malnourished and not having anything to do,’ she says. ‘We needed a fast solution to an urgent problem. … The kids can’t be registered in schools because they don’t have a status.’ ”

Elsewhere:

• “Comic books were left on trains, buses, trams and underground systems in cities around the UK [in November] to mark 80 years of Marvel Comics.

• “A tram in Bucharest recently hosted an interactive poetry library where passengers were able to read poetry books written by Romanian authors and listen to jazz.

• “Carriages on two subway trains in Beijing were turned into audio book libraries where passengers could download books. …

• “People in the Netherlands get to travel on trains for free during the country’s annual book week celebrations. Passengers can present a novel instead of a rail ticket.

• “In the Greek city of Thessaloniki, the transport ministry installed mini libraries at bus stops to allow commuters to read as they wait for the bus. ….

• “Passengers on New York’s subway can download free short stories, poems, essays and book excerpts to their devices during the transport authority’s annual Subway Reads campaign, first launched in 2016.” More here.

Fresh off an hour or so of reading to my grandchildren, I know for sure that books mean a lot to kids. Adults, too. It’s important to learn to read, for sure, but maybe even more to let imaginations soar.

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Photo: Diaa Hadid/NPR
Farahnaz Mohammadi (left) and her cousin Fatima Almi, seen in a peaceful Kabul park, hope that the gains made by Afghan women in recent years will remain after a peace deal.

This story is about a peaceful garden in Kabul, Afghanistan, a city where peace is at a premium. Erik’s sister works for the UN in that city, helping women gain leadership skills, so of course, I want to believe in islands of peace like this taking over the danger zones.

Diaa Hadid and Khwaga Ghani reported on the Gardens of Babur at National Public Radio (NPR) in October.

“Farahnaz Mohammadi, 17, and her cousin Fatima Almi, 19, dress identically, from their patterned headscarves to their shoes with matching bunny ears. They also share the same opinions on Afghanistan’s future, which may be nearing a critical phase as a deal between the U.S. and Taliban insurgents appears to be reviving.

“That deal would likely see most American forces withdraw from Afghanistan, where they have been at war for 18 years. In exchange, the Taliban would not host global militant groups like al-Qaida and may adhere to some sort of ceasefire. It would also likely to allow the Taliban to reenter political life.

“The two young women don’t like it at all.

” ‘We will go back to what we were,’ says Mohammadi, referring to a time before she was born, when the Taliban ruled much of Afghanistan and imposed harsh rules against women. …

“Mohammadi’s view was echoed by other women interviewed by NPR in Kabul. The capital is more liberal than other quarters of Afghanistan, yet the uniformity of the opinions suggests a broadly held concern. …

“Mohammadi says she craves safety and security. But she has also benefited from the advances women have made with American forces helping to secure Afghan cities. Describing it as a ‘half-peace,’ she says even in those conditions, ‘girls can go out.’ She gestures around where she stands in Kabul’s Babur Garden, a centuries-old park where orchards and grassy lawns provide a shelter of sorts from the city’s dusty chaos.” More from NPR.

Wikipedia explains that the Garden of Babur “is the last resting-place of the first Mughal emperor Babur. The gardens are thought to have been developed around 1528 AD [when] Babur gave orders for the construction of an ‘avenue garden’ in Kabul …

“Since 2003, the focus of conservation has been on the white marble mosque built by Shah Jahan in 1675 to mark his conquest of Balkh; restoration of the Babur’s grave enclosure; repairs to the garden pavilion dating from the early 20th century; and reconstruction of the … Queen’s Palace. In addition, a new caravanserai was built on the footprint of an earlier building at the base of the garden …

“Significant investments have been made in the natural environment of the garden, taking account of the historic nature of the landscape and the needs of contemporary visitors. A system of partially piped irrigation was installed, and several thousand indigenous trees planted, including planes, cypresses, hawthorn, wild cherry (alubalu — allegedly introduced by Babur from the north of Kabul) and other fruit and shade trees. Based on the results of archaeological excavations, the relationships between the 13 terraces and the network of paths and stairs have been re-established.

“Since January 16, 2008, the garden has been managed by the independent Baghe Babur Trust and has seen a significant increase in visitor numbers. Nearly 300,000 people visited the site in 2008 and about 1,030,000 people visited the site in 2016.”

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Photo: The Guardian
Mashed Mahjor says she started Book Cottage in Afghanistan because there children don’t have a lot of opportunities to talk freely and ask questions.

Today’s post is another in a series about what books mean to people. At least since the age of 10, I myself have found that getting lost in a book is about the most consistently comforting thing I do, and it seems that many other people feel the same.

Stefanie Glinski writes for the Guardian, “In a dimly lit room in west Kabul, stacked with shelves full of books, a small crowd gathers around the warmth of a gas heater. Books clamped under their arms, they are eager to share the stories they’ve read over the course of the week.

“Members of Afghanistan’s youngest reading club, the Book Cottage, range in age from four to 13. The club is just one of many reading circles that are springing up across the capital and reviving a book culture that, once lost, is now vibrant, liberal and expanding once again.

” ‘You have to start them young,’ explains the initiative’s founder, 25-year-old Mashed Mahjor. ‘The country is still at war, so children don’t have a lot of opportunities to talk freely and ask questions, especially girls. We have to bring our book culture back to life.’

“After starting the reading club six years ago, she now has up to 20 regular members – and hundreds of book donations from all over the world.

“But trends are shifting. In west Kabul, a neighbourhood with laid-back coffee shops, small startup businesses, a quick-growing dating scene and – at its heart – Kabul University, reading circles for all ages are expanding. They have started to provide a platform for Afghans to discuss, in a mixed-gender environment, issues not on the public agenda of a conservative society. …

“One such space is found in a basement room of one of the city’s universities, where a group of up to 20 book lovers meets weekly. Some travel the length of the city to participate.

“ ‘It’s worth it,’ says Attash Mashal, a civil engineer and government employee. ‘Most of the books we read can’t be accessed in Afghanistan, so we search for them online and print out copies. We read novels, poetry and philosophy.

“ ‘This one is censored though,’ he adds, holding a copy of Albert Camus’ The Fall. ‘We just found out.’ …

“It’s the translations that most people are after, as it can be difficult to read books in English or other languages. At Aksos, the city’s biggest and most diverse book store, people squeeze into the tight space, examining new titles, reading in corners, or taking selfies against a backdrop of bookshelves. Books are the new cool.

“Aksos holds anything from The Kite Runner – another book previously banned in the country – to The Daydreams of Ashraf Ghani, the country’s president.

“ ‘Once again, the city is boasting poets, writers and creatives pushing against the recent norm,’ says [Syeda Quratulain Masood, who has been researching Kabul’s book culture for her PhD at Brown University in the US].

“ ‘I think it’s because in book clubs, or when writing poetry, we can share our ideas and beliefs without restrictions,’ says Yalda Heideri, a student in her twenties who attends a university book club.

“ ‘Afghanistan has restricted us a lot, especially us women, so we found a way to have discussions that would be embarrassing or even impossible outside.’ But for Heideri, literature has also become an escape from daily life in a wartorn country where there were 3,804 civilian deaths last year, according to the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan.

‘When I get tired of it all, I escape into poetry. It’s a whole different world.

” ‘Kabul is improving and becoming more open, which makes me hopeful. But regardless of where peace negotiations are going, we have to find our own way to cope, and books are just that for me.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Afghanistan National Institute of Music
Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra, Zohra, is touring.

I’ve been interested in Afghanistan since before the headlines were all about the US conflict there. At least since reading Jason Elliot’s excellent An Unexpected Light and seeing the Tony Kushner play Homebody: Kabul. But lately I have an even stronger interest as Erik’s sister works on women’s rights in Afghanistan for the United Nations.

This BBC story provides one angle on Afghan women’s rights. Vincent Dowd has the report.

“Five years ago, a unique all-female orchestra was formed in Afghanistan, a nation where only a few years previously music had been outlawed and women barred from education. Now Zohra is visiting the UK for the first time.

“No-one claims that in Afghanistan, the Taliban influence has been rooted out entirely. Violence continues. But two decades ago, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music would have been unthinkable.

“ANIM was founded in 2008, with international support, to bring music education to young Afghans. … ANIM teaches music skills to some 250 young people, both male and female. That figure is about to rise to 320 and there are plans to expand to cities such as Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Jalalabad.

“About 70% of the young people at the institute come from disadvantaged backgrounds — some used to work the streets selling vegetables, plastic bags or chewing gum to support their families. Ages range from 12 to around 20.

“But five years ago, ANIM founder by Dr Ahmad Sarmast was urged to start a new project specifically to benefit girls.

” ‘One of our students told me we needed a group of four or five girls to play pop music,’ he says. ‘I liked the idea but almost at once it became clear most of the girls at ANIM wanted to join. Suddenly we were talking about a full orchestra.’ …

“There are around 100 female students at ANIM, 23 of whom have come to Britain. Their numbers will be doubled when they play in concert with the London-based Orchestra of St John’s and others. Instruments they’ve brought with them include the sarod, the rubab, tabla drums and the dutar.

“The music performed is a combination of traditional Afghan music and western classical. For instance, their new arrangement of Greensleeves contains attractive new instrumentation probably not envisaged by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1934.

“The conductor for the Afghan pieces is Negin Khpalwak, who at 22 is one of the older musicians in the group. She joined the school not long after it opened — not initially with the idea of conducting at all. …

” ‘It’s much easier for me to conduct when we play Afghan music,’ she says. ‘We’re very familiar with it and we play together easily. If we perform something like Greensleeves — which I think is very well-known in England — we have to concentrate extra hard.’ …

“Negin Khpalwak says even in Kabul, students can still sometimes encounter people beyond the school who think it’s wrong that the orchestra even exists.

” ‘They will say that in Islam women aren’t allowed to go to school, not just for music but to study anything. But it’s not true — women have their own rights and those people need to be educated. Our music isn’t the only way to do that — but it’s one way.’ ”

More here.

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1011-ddp-turquoise-director-ledePhoto: Scott Peterson/Christian Science Monitor
Nathan Stroupe, Afghanistan country director for Turquoise Mountain, in the courtyard of one of the 112 buildings the British charity has restored so far to create an institute for Afghan artisans to revitalize their heritage.

Christian Science Monitor has great stories about people and organizations that make a difference. I loved this one on a UK nonprofit called Turquoise Mountain, which is reviving ancient crafts in Afghanistan and providing much-need work for craftsmen and -women. More than 500 artisans have graduated from Turquoise Mountain specializing in traditional crafts such as woodworking, jewelry-making and gem cutting, ceramics, and elaborate calligraphy.

Writes the Monitor, “What sounds like a lovely effort to revive traditional culture in a place where art had been almost stomped out by war is about more than making jewelry. As a former ambassador says: ‘It is about preserving the soul of the country.’

“When Turquoise Mountain took on the restoration of Murad Khani, one of Kabul’s poorest historical neighborhoods, its aim was to do more than clear away wartime debris. From the beginning, the British charity also sought to revive the disappearing arts of Afghan culture, among them jewelry-making, woodworking, and gem cutting.

“Rays of hope are rare in Afghanistan, but in the process of revitalizing Murad Khani, Turquoise Mountain has created a model now being applied in Myanmar (Burma) and Saudi Arabia, and soon in Jordan, with Syrian refugee artisans. A project that started by hiring 1,000 workers to remove deep layers of trash has so far renovated 112 buildings and created an art institute, primary school, and a clinic that sees 2,000 patients a month. The institute has produced 500 graduates, and their work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. That helps change perceptions. …

“In her heart, Ramzia Sarwary-Khorami always wanted to make jewelry. But the path to success in Afghanistan is narrow, especially for a woman, no matter how intrepid or ambitious.

“Then on the radio a decade ago, she heard about a new urban reclamation project …

“Ms. Sarwary-Khorami signed up with Turquoise Mountain and learned soldering, sandpapering metals and stones, and the secrets of the six cultures of Afghan jewelry making.

“ ‘I found my dreams,’ says Sarwary-Khorami, who now works as a teacher and quality controller for the charity and sells her own creations through high-end jewelry designers in London – a pathway established by Turquoise Mountain for its graduate artisans.

“ ‘Every year we have more students, I tell them: “Come to Turquoise Mountain, we can support you,” ‘ she says.”

I will be talking to Suzanne about the jewelry. Maybe there would be a way for Luna & Stella to work with Turquoise Mountain. (And speaking of Luna & Stella, do check out the latest — antique lockets to complement the company’s contemporary birthstone jewelry. Think Christmas, Hanukah, weddings …)

More at the Christian Science Monitor, but it’s behind a firewall.

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Photo: Michael Desmond
Rumi Spice, which sells saffron from Afghanistan, makes a pitch on the TV show “Shark Tank.” It takes 150 Saffron Crocus flowers to make one gram of the coveted spice.

Most cooks know that the spice called saffron, essential for dishes like paella, is expensive. But much of what is available in the US is fake. That’s where some military veterans come in.

Catherine Clifford at CNBC has the story.

Rumi Spice appeared on ‘Shark Tank’ seeking a $250,000 investment for five percent equity. The three co-founders — Emily Miller, Kim Jung and Keith Alaniz — all served in the military in Afghanistan. They learned that the war-torn country is covered with the purple flowers that make saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world. They also learned that Afghan saffron is some of the best quality saffron in the world. …

“To bring more business and more money to the farmers in Afghanistan, Rumi Spice built an infrastructure to sell saffron harvested in Afghanistan to consumers in the United States.

“Rumi Spice sells one gram of saffron for $18, one ounce for $140. ‘It’s so expensive because there is no automation, it all has to be hand processed,’ says Jung, who, along with Miller, is both a West Point and Harvard Business School graduate. …

” ‘I don’t think there is a political risk because we are operating with the farmers, we are giving them incentive to produce and we are giving them an incentive to protect their investment,’ said Alaniz [in answer to a question]. …

“[Dallas-based tech entrepreneur Mark] Cuban offered the entrepreneurs a $250,000 investment for 15 percent equity, more than three times what the founders were hoping to give away of their company for the cash. However, he insisted there is no room for negotiation.

“Cuban gave two reasons for making the deal, despite the problems other sharks see in the young company: He respects their work to empower Afghani farmers and he likes to work with veterans.

“The entrepreneurs accepted the deal. …

” ‘Striking a deal with Mark Cuban is a game changer, for the women in Afghanistan who work for us, for the farmers in Afghanistan,’ Miller said.”

More here. The CNBC story has beautiful pictures from Rumi Spice’s twitter feed, @rumi_spice. And the company’s blog is fascinating.

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I like reading that the numbers of socially conscious companies are increasing. Recently, Naz Akyol at Social Enterprise Greenhouse in Providence wrote about one such business.

“Three years ago, active duty airman Michael Gnoato lost his life in a fatal car accident in Wyoming. Major Pettaway, a Marine who knew Mikey since high school, missed the funeral because he was deployed in Afghanistan at the time, but Navy Seabee Sadam Salas was there to speak at their best friend’s funeral. …

“The two young men are the co-founders (as well as CEO and CFO, respectively) of Mike’s Ice, a deliciously novel idea that pays tribute to their fallen friend, and also a social enterprise committed to fighting veteran homelessness and more.

“Sadam and Major [sell] Thai style ice cream rolls that come in seven fun flavors, … a commodity that only recently hit US markets with only a handful of stores in New York City. They also decided to give their venture four wheels and make Mike’s Ice a mobile truck. …

“Everything that is sold at Mike’s Ice is made from scratch, which means the truck needs to be equipped with special ice cream making machines as well as equipment for storing their ice cream bases and toppings. When asked about the greatest challenge they have faced so far, Sadam smiles and says: ‘You don’t sleep a lot.’ …

“Mike’s Ice received a SEG Hub Scholarship from Social Enterprise Greenhouse … [and] is partnered with Backpacks For Life, a nonprofit that provides homeless veterans with backpacks that contain essentials for survival.

‘We are both veterans, and now we are also entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs exist to solve problems,’ Sadam says. ‘Veteran homelessness, suicide …. these problems shouldn’t exist. These are people who fought for their country.’

More here.

Photo: Social Enterprise Greenhouse

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I can’t resist a story about people “paying it forward” — helping others as they have been helped. Today’s story is set in Afghanistan.

Maija Liuhto writes for the “Making a Difference” series of the Christian Science Monitor, “At a school in the capital of Afghanistan, little boys wearing oversize white uniforms hurry down a flight of stairs to make it to judo practice, while girls in colorful headscarves eagerly wait for their tailoring class to begin upstairs. Hashmatullah Hayat, a project supervisor at the school, offers advice to the children who pop into his office asking about their computer classes or English homework.

“All this may sound like a typical scene. But Aschiana is not a regular school. And Mr. Hayat may best symbolize what this school is accomplishing.

“The boys and girls who study here are street children. Some of them spend much time selling balloons to passersby or collecting plastic on streets that are ruled by gangs and drug lords.

“Hayat was once one of these children. But while still a boy he found his way to Aschiana, taking a special interest in its painting classes.

“Now he’s a smiling young man with impeccable English, the walls of his office decorated with his own impressive artwork.

“Hayat’s life story has become an inspiration to the children who are struggling to get off the streets. And he’s determined to help them as much as he can, even though living somewhere else could be less risky.

“ ‘No, you cannot say that you feel safe here,’ he says. But for him, leaving the work he is doing is not on the table: ‘If the people at Aschiana were able to help me, then I should also be able to help others.’

“Aschiana operates in various corners of Afghanistan, and it is currently helping about 5,700 boys and girls get access to basic education.” More about Hashmatullah Hayat here.

Photo: Maija Liuhto
After being a student at Aschiana, where he learned art well enough to start selling it at 16, Hashmatullah Hayat now works there and helps to educate street children.

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Maria Di Mento writes in The Chronicle of Philanthropy about a new fund to help military families.

“Three affluent families are forming a fund with the purpose of raising $30 million to support programs that serve military veterans, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America announced [in July].

“The families have donated more than $1 million and plan to seek contributions especially from other wealthy people, including those without personal connections to any service members.

“Philip Green, president of PDG Consulting, a health-care consultancy,  and his wife, Elizabeth Cobbs, chief of geriatrics at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C., joined with their friends Glenn and Laurie Garland and with the Jim Stimmel family to create the fund, Mr. Green said in an interview with The Chronicle.

“The money raised for the new Veterans Support Fund will be funneled to five nonprofits that help returning service members and their families.” Read more.

I think it’s interesting that the donors are reaching out to those who have not been personally touched by the wars to solicit funds. On a blog at work we were just discussing the fact that so many men and women were risking their lives, their families’ stability, and their mental health for the last ten years while so many of the rest of us were mostly untouched.

Hats off to these philanthropists! It’s one thing to see the unequal contributions of Americans. It’s another to do something about it.

Photograph: Sarah Conard/Reuters/File
Sgt. Audrey Johnsey (left) greets Sfc. Joshua Herbig (right), who she served with in Afghanistan, during the Welcome Home Heroes Parade in St. Louis in January.

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The bimonthly magazine called the Utne Reader likes to showcase alternative and contrarian views on the news. Here’s a sort of hands-across-the world story about taking bluegrass music to Afghanistan.

“My name is Peyton Tochterman. I’m a musician from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I make my living writing, teaching and performing American Folk music—the music that tells stories in notes, chords and verse about who we are and what we Americans are all about. And I’m now in war-torn Afghanistan. …

“In little more than a week we have already met thousands of Afghans and found them to be kind, generous, hospitable, talented and honorable. They take great pride in their heritage and culture, but they also have a thirst for American Folk Music, for the stories we tell, our instruments and the way we play. The Afghan musicians with whom we played are some of the best in the world and were eager to share their masterful techniques and songs.

“Some might ask, ‘What difference can a folk singer from the Blue Ridge Mountains make in a tortured place like Afghanistan?’ It’s a valid question—partly answered by one of the State Department officers who said our visit did ‘more for diplomacy between Afghanistan and the United States than any diplomat had done, more then any road that was built, or any power plant that was constructed in the last year.’ ” Read more.

Photograph of Peyton Tochterman: The Utne Reader

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I finished Jason Elliot’s book about Iran, Mirrors of the Unseen. It was hard work but rewarding.

I bought the book because I really liked Elliot’s An Unexpected Light about the history, culture, and daily life of Afghanistan back when the mujahideen were still fighting the Soviets. (I’m reasonably sure that Tony Kushner’s prophetic play Homebody/Kabul was partially based on that book.)

Mirrors of the Unseen is a challenging read at times because it is very intellectual. It has lots of words and history and concepts that were new to me, but it also has wonderful stories about the ordinary people Elliot met. Even though he wrote it a few years before the the June 20, 2009, Green Revolution, you can get a sense of the attitudes of normal Iranians and what might have led to the unsuccessful revolt.

Elliot does not focus on politics, but rather on Persian art and architecture, which inspired him at a deep level.

I was reading a passage to my friend Claire on the train, and she said, “No wonder it has taken so long to read! It’s poetry!”

So for my last post on the book, I will give a few examples of Elliot’s style. He describes some English tourists as looking “very sad, and it seemed quite likely they had arrived in Iran by accident, like fish that are said to be swept up in hailstones and deposited hundreds of miles away.”

As he travels toward the southern part of Tehran toward the train station, “the surroundings grew steadily more decrepit, as if an old witch was being shed of her make-up.” And the train itself “had the air of a dragon straining at its leash.”

Here’s my favorite, from a discussion of whether the fascination that all religions seem to have with flame is passed from ancient cultures to modern or is something innate in humans: “Had the sanctity of flame erupted irresistibly into human consciousness as mysteriously as the hexagon into the intelligence of the bee?”

My other posts on the book are here, here, and here.

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